Growing Up in Gangland

Elliot Delgado shivers inside his collar as a stiff wind blows through the park in Dorchester’s Fields Corner section. He’s not wearing a hat, and fake diamond earrings glint on his ears in the thin, yellow glow of the streetlights. He nods a casual “What up” to a friend passing by. In fact, Delgado nods to almost everyone as he walks down the street. Except the girls, who get a nod and a smile.

“I know everyone around here,” the 17-year-old says. “My reputation is getting bigger and bigger.” The 6-foot-1 senior has been burning up the basketball court recently at English High, and last year played six games with a professional team in his native Puerto Rico. It’s because of ball, he says, that he’s earned respect without having to resort to violence, as many of his peers do. As we pass by the park’s court, a blue-and-red rubber surface with puddles in its divots, he points up to the bent rim. “That’s where I got my first dunk,” he says, savoring the moment again.

Even here in the park, violence is never far away. Delgado points across the street to a strip mall anchored by an old Bradlee’s sign with most of the letters missing. “See that laundromat over there? That’s where a friend of mine got shot. They shot him seven or eight times, and he lived, too.” Asked why his friend was shot, Delgado responds simply: “Gangs.”

Like most kids around here, Delgado is well acquainted with the gangs in the neighborhood; he points out an infamous drug dealer and the more dangerous streets as we walk along. His smooth face and half-lidded eyes are constantly weighing how much to reveal about his own history. Most of his friends own guns or knives, he says. He bought a gun himself in seventh grade after a group of kids handcuffed him to a lamppost and beat him, but has since gotten rid of it. He used to have a knife, too, but gave that up, wiping away the fingerprints and throwing it in the trash.

That was after another of his basketball friends, Michael McQuay, was dropped by a shot that crackled out of the winter night on Geneva Avenue last January. Delgado saw the police lights flashing in his neighborhood that night, but he didn’t find out what had happened until he saw his friend’s picture in the paper the next day. “I was, like, I was just playing basketball with him, and he’s gone,” Delgado says. “I know how it is now. After this, I could get shot.” Then he wipes the thought away with a shake of his head. “If I don’t pay mind to it, I’ll be all right. The more I don’t pay mind to it, trouble doesn’t come to me.”

Michael McQuay’s was the first homicide of 2003. According to witnesses and family members, the 14-year-old had crossed the street to buy popcorn for a movie he was watching with his parents, stopped to talk to someone in a maroon Nissan, and was shot in the head and killed.

But his was by no means the only teen slaying. Last year saw dozens of high-profile shootings that have nudged the city back into a consciousness of violence unknown for nearly a decade, and made life more precarious for young people like Delgado. It’s a problem fed by high teenage unemployment and cuts in city spending on youth services and schools at the same time that gangbangers jailed years ago are returning to the street in record numbers. That, in turn, has fueled a resurgence of gangs, including some that are forming larger, more ominous local alliances and purportedly even national affiliations.

The tipping point came in the summer of 2002, when 10-year-old Trina Persad was killed in the crossfire of gang violence in a Roxbury park. It continued last spring, during what the Boston Herald dubbed “Bloody April,” when there were 10 separate shootings within a two-week period. Then, on July 1, a year to the day after Persad died, an errant bullet hit and paralyzed three-year-old Kai Leigh Harriott while she was sitting on a porch on Bowdoin Street. As summer turned to fall, gang violence produced five shootings and a stabbing on a single night in September. Two months later, the rampage of a gunman who shot five people in Dudley Square was barely an exclamation point.

It’s enough for some to worry that the bad old days of gang warfare have returned to Boston — site of a prolonged siege in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when Mission Hill and the Combat Zone were synonymous with urban violence. After reaching a record low of 31 in 1999, the number of killings rose to 60 by 2002. And while that rate fell this past year by 40 percent, the number of teen victims rose from five to six, and the number of nonfatal shootings stayed steady — meaning that almost as many bullets were fired, even if not every one took a life.

Police warn against overreacting. “Thirty-one homicides is probably an unrealistic figure, but unfortunately the bar was set there,” says Superintendent Paul Joyce, head of the Youth Violence Strike Force, who has been hailed for helping develop the strategy that has cut the murder rate from its high of 153 in 1990 — and now is reported to be a candidate for the police department’s top job, left open by the departure of Commissioner Paul Evans. “We are not returning to the late ’80s and early ’90s.”

That’s little consolation to the thousands of kids like Delgado who are caught in the middle of the violence. Their lives are lived worlds away from downtown and the Back Bay, even if they’re less than five miles distant as the bullet flies. For these young people, the brightly lit Prudential building might as well be some distant mountain peak. In their neighborhoods, it’s not even safe to cross the street, much less get on the Orange Line for the quick trip downtown.

Intervale Street looks like it was glued together from the cracked remains of other, older neighborhoods.

A mix of buildings without a common theme — brownstones, single-family houses, low-rise apartment complexes — brood over what was once the most dangerous street in Boston. Even now, it’s not pretty. Plastic bags and takeout trays litter the ground, mocking the two big trash cans standing by the rusted fence of a basketball court. On a low concrete wall facing the courts a mural reads, “Reach for the Stars” — but “Stars” is squeezed down in a corner, trailing off into the ground.

Leaning against a street lamp, Aljemall Peeples, 20, says he’s sick of hearing people criticize his community. “The past haunts this neighborhood,” he says. He’s wearing tortoise-shell glasses and an athletic jacket over a slight, athletic frame. “As soon as you mention Intervale, it’s over. When I go to play ball, they ask ‘Are you down with Intervale?’ I get that all the time.” Peeples took the initiative to build up a youth basketball league from scratch, using the courts at the top of the hill that were once the exclusive territory of drug dealers. Like everyone else, he’s heard shots ringing out in the neighborhood at night. A good friend of his was killed, too, in 1999. “If we never started that league, I don’t know where these kids would be,” he says.

If there’s a Ground Zero of youth violence in Boston, it’s Grove Hall, where the spine of Blue Hill Avenue connects streets best known as gang names during the crack epidemic of the late 1980s: Fayston, Brunswick,

Creston, Magnolia, Castlegate, and especially Intervale. The notorious Intervale Posse was dismantled after a federal drug raid in 1996, and most of these other gangs soon disbanded, too.

Since then, Grove Hall has languished, only now stirring to signs of development. A new shopping center and temporary youth center were built within the past two years, but both barely make a dent on a landscape of empty lots and boarded-up houses. The next generation of teenagers, who were 10 and 11 when their older brothers and cousins were swept off the streets in the 1990s, are stepping into their shoes, forming gangs and selling drugs.

“It’s the younger kids, trying to keep the rep the older kids had before, just like we were trying to keep up the rep of the kids who came before us,” says Cesar Salazar, a 23-year-old who used to run with Intervale. Like many in the neighborhood, Salazar began selling drugs for extra money to buy clothes, but soon found himself dodging bullets. “Many of these kids have addictive behavior before they even pick up a drink or a drug,” says Street Peace founder Rodney Dailey, himself a former addict, who has helped Salazar and others get out of the gang life. Dailey sees gang membership as just another drug, providing a cheap self-esteem boost followed by harmful consequences. “The gang is the outward experience of what’s going on inside.”

As new gangs have formed, turf battles have erupted. Down the street from Grove Hall is Geneva Avenue, whose feud with the housing project Warren Gardens was behind many of the killings in “Bloody April.” Farther down Geneva, Asian and other ethnic gangs — Somali, Jamaican — control Fields Corner, where Elliot Delgado lives. Up Dorchester Avenue, in Uphams Corner, Cape Verdean crews continue a battle of retaliation that has gone on for a decade. And on the other side of Roxbury and into Jamaica Plain, Latin gangs rule Walnut Park and Egleston Square. It’s a complicated patchwork of boundaries that most people who live outside never even see.

The Latin gangs in particular, says Dailey, are allying with national gangs like the Latin Kings and Gangster Disciples, which already have solid footholds in cities including Springfield, Brockton, and Lawrence. Other national gangs, including the Bloods and Crips, he says, have also started appearing in the neighborhoods of Boston.

Police dismiss this. “There ain’t no national gangs in Boston,” says Sergeant Detective Bobby Merner, head of the night detective squad in the district that includes Grove Hall. “‘Cause these kids won’t let them set up shop.”

But one city youth worker says national gangs have been setting up shop here since the late ’90s. “Police didn’t want to believe it, school officials didn’t want to believe it,” he says. “Youth workers were saying it was a fad, it will go away, but it didn’t go away. It started to take a foothold.” And unlike national gangs in the old days, members of these sets aren’t standing on the corner wearing blue and red bandannas, says another youth counselor. They’re quietly recruiting members of individual gangs, who keep their national affiliations a secret from authorities, and even punishing those recruits for attracting attention by doing badly in school or getting in trouble with police.

Some local gangs have also banded together to form alliances, say police. In Grove Hall, for example, a reconstituted Intervale has allied with neighboring Magnolia Street and Columbia Road, to form MIC, which has battled with the Big Head Boyz of Brunswick Street. That’s the beef that led to Trina Persad’s death in a park a few blocks away.

For the most part, however, the new gangs remain less organized than the old gangs were, blurring the lines between kids who grow up on a particular street, kids who are selling drugs to make money, and kids displaying the tattoos and hand signals of dyed-in-the-wool gang affiliation. In this more chaotic environment, gunfights are just as likely to be over girls or perceived slights as they are over turf squabbles. “Before, you had certain guys you knew were shooters,” says officer Greg Brown of the city’s Youth Violence Strike Force. “Nowadays, it seems like everybody’s a shooter.”

A circle of teenagers gathers in the basement of the Ella J. Baker House in Dorchester. They display the badges of urban youth — hooded sweatshirts, baggy jeans, vinyl jackets with the names of sports heroes on the back. Most carry other badges as well: their records of brushes with law enforcement, which led a social worker or probation officer to place them in this program, the Examined Life Project.

“What happens if you appear in court all slouched down wearing a hoodie and flossing with gold chains around your neck?” asks the facilitator, an imposing black man with dreadlocks and Timberland boots. “What’s the judge going to think?” Finally, the most outspoken boy pipes up: “They’s gonna think you did whatever they say you did,” he says, as the other boys laugh. Trying to appear innocent isn’t easy for these boys, who have staked their lives on avoiding trouble by looking as menacing as possible.

“Trouble came natural to me,” says one, Sharodney Finch, who looks older than his 16 years. “Everybody try me. I had to basically fight my way in.” Though most of these encounters were with fists, Finch quickly learned the intimidation value of owning a gun: “If you don’t have one, you better get one.” As a member of Street Peace who asked not be named puts it, “Back in the day, someone would fight, but people don’t have those kind of skills now. Nowadays, they just shoot you.”

“We’re seeing an increased interest in gun use among young people,” concurs Jack McDevitt, a criminologist at Northeastern University. “What I see is kids who carry guns are at least involved on the margins of criminal history.”

With youth unemployment at its highest rate in 40 years, municipal budget cuts have made things worse. The Boston Youth Fund was able to provide fewer than half the jobs for teenagers last year as the year before — and the juvenile population is expected to increase by 20 percent citywide by 2009. In schools, budget cuts have also led to layoffs of bus monitors and counselors who can cut down on minor spats before they get to the point of a fight.

“They are averting tragedies there every day,” says one former conflict mediator who left her job. “It feels like things could explode at any moment. Teachers are going down to the T stop and breaking up fights, confiscating weapons.” New pressure to pass the MCAS test for graduation, she says, has also prompted an increasing number of students to give up and drop out.

“The city has been stretched, the state has been stretched, the resources for mentoring, recreation, and remedial education are not keeping pace with the number of youth coming on,” says Baker House director Kenneth D. Johnson. “We have a short window in which to get the resources in place. Otherwise, nature abhors a vacuum.”

As in the past, that vacuum will be filled by youth crimes like robbery and drug sales. The new generation doesn’t sell as much crack cocaine as marijuana and heroin, including a new form of “crack-heroin” that’s smoked or snorted instead of injected. And where there are drug sales, there are gangs, and finally guns to protect their turf. “People get tired of wearing the same damn jeans,” complains Finch, who says he applied for a job last summer at Fenway Park but was turned down. “You try to do the right thing, find a job trying to earn money, and you can’t. You got a block right here, you know what I’m saying?”

Aside from their matching shaved heads, Bobby Merner and Greg Brown couldn’t look more different. Merner is a cop from central casting, a potty-mouth with a barrel chest stuffed into a fleece Gap pullover. Brown, an officer with the city’s Youth Violence Strike Force, could be the lead in a blaxploitation flick, wearing a long leather jacket over a ribbed sweater and a Coach fisherman’s cap pulled down on his head.

Tonight, Merner and Brown circle the streets of Roxbury in an unmarked gray Ford. There isn’t much action — just a couple of kids doling out weed on Blue Hill Avenue. They stand glumly as the two cops confiscate their baggies and take their names. Both of the kids are on probation, and their names will be logged into a laptop on Merner’s desk. “There are no anonymous kids in black hoodies out here. That shit don’t happen,” Merner says. Adds Brown: “By the time someone’s out on the corner, we know who they are.”

Knowing who’s on a corner and who pulled a trigger are two different things, however, and trying to prevent or solve shootings is like putting together a puzzle with some of the pieces missing. The Boston police’s longtime strategy is to get the “impact players” — heavy hitters who are leading the wave of violence — off the street. One police analysis found that just a few hundred teens out of a citywide population of about 19,000 are responsible for 70 percent of violent crimes. In Grove Hall alone, police have identified 457 young people responsible for 12,000 crimes. “That accounts for 2.4 percent of the youth population,” says Youth Violence Strike Force head Paul Joyce. “That means 98 percent of the population is doing the right thing.”

The so-called Boston Strategy took shape in the early ’90s after the Morningstar Church became the scene of a brutal stabbing at the wake of a gangbanger. At the heart of the strategy was a plan dubbed Operation Ceasefire. After each shooting — or even before potential incidents — police would bring the members of the offending gang into a room and put them on notice of a new zero-tolerance policy. Meanwhile, probation officers, youth workers, and black ministers went into the streets at night, counseling teens and referring them to jobs and other programs. The hard-core gangsters who refused the olive branch would get the full attention of police, who would put them in jail on whatever charge they could — drugs, probation violations, renewed investigations into open cases. The strategy was so successful it was dubbed the Boston Miracle and served as a model for other police departments nationwide.

By the late 1990s, with the gangs nearly gone and the violence rate down, many of the key players in Operation Ceasefire moved on. Some, like the Reverend Eugene Rivers, stepped into the national spotlight; others drifted to new organizations. When the next generation began rising through the ranks, and the murder rate started increasing, the team was gone.

“I think we’ve hit a point of complacency,” says Howard Spivak, director of the Tufts University Center

for Children and coauthor of Murder Is No Accident: Understanding and Preventing Youth Violence in America. “Things were better, and people just assumed that we had done our job. Many of the preventive elements lost some energy.”

Just after Trina Persad’s murder, one of the authors of Operation Ceasefire, David Kennedy, a senior researcher at Harvard’s Kennedy School, wrote a scathing editorial in the Boston Globe criticizing participants for abandoning Operation Ceasefire just when they had achieved success. “The outside attention was draining,” he wrote. “Ceasefire participants were soon spending as much time, or more, going to the White House, Congress, other cities, and handling press as they were fighting crime.”

Police say they haven’t abandoned the program. They say it’s just been changed to suit the times. While not meeting religiously with gangs like they used to, the police say they have taken the Ceasefire message to schools and community groups instead. “It’s not the same city,” says Joyce. “We’ve had to develop new strategies.”

Now, with the release of former gangbangers jailed in the 1990s, police have launched the Re-entry Initiative, which connects serious offenders with prosecutors, probation officers, and counselors — and sometimes other former gang members — to provide them with food, housing, and related services.

“It’s the same message as Ceasefire,” Joyce says. “We want you to know there are services we can offer you. If you decide not to take advantage of them, and move back into crime, we are going to monitor that very closely and act swiftly.” At the same time police are dealing with old gang members, they are racing to save the next generation of potential recruits.

Paul Joyce braces himself to pounce as a teen runs full speed toward him. Sweat glistening on his pink shaved head, Joyce gets his wiry body in front of the kid. But he’s a second too late. With a juke, the kid blows by to throw two points in the hoop. Joyce shoves a fist into his hand to call a frustrated time out.

The basketball game between the police league and a team of neighborhood teenagers is being staged to celebrate a minor miracle: the opening of the first youth center in Grove Hall in decades. Minutes earlier, Mayor Tom Menino had stood in a robin’s-egg blue shirt at a podium at the free-throw line to officially declare the center open. “This is a renewal to our commitment to the neighborhoods of Boston because the neighborhoods of Boston are what make Boston work,” Menino said. “We have to fight for them.”

The center, a makeshift structure local kids call Da Bubble, shows how tough that fight will be. The huge white canvas hangar with air ducts and exposed wires used to sit in City Hall Plaza, where it was filled with the animatronic singing elves of the old Enchanted Village. In a partnership with Stop Handgun Violence, which paid the relocation costs, the city last year moved the building to the disenchanted village of Grove Hall.

For kids like Aljemall Peeples on Intervale Street, the center is a godsend. He stops by Da Bubble after school a few days a week. Unlike Elliot Delgado, however, he doesn’t think basketball will be the salvation for his friends. “It’s too late for us, man,” Peeples says with an air of resignation surprising to hear from a 20-year-old. “We have to look to the younger generation.” As thankful as he is for the new court, he remains wary about how much the city will go to bat for kids like him, who have chosen to do the right thing. “This dude, Marino, Merino — the mayor,” he says — “I never seen him down here before.” When Peeples tried to get the city to turn on the lights on the court he uses for his own basketball program, he says, officials told him lights would be a magnet for gang violence.

In Peeples’s experience, it’s not the programs, but the parents who set the tone for their kids. He doesn’t know where he would be without the aunt and uncle who raised him. That’s the kind of mentoring he’d like to give back, not just to the kids who can navigate gang turf to make it to the center, but even to the “knuckleheads” who wouldn’t set foot down the hill. “The community center is a start,” he says. But he’s still waiting for them to turn on the lights on Intervale Street.